Philippe Saint-Andre will bring his French squad to Twickenham with a likely experimental side, where time is running out for a glut of players
France coach Philippe Saint-Andre gave his squad a day off on Tuesday, allowing his 36 players the chance to enjoy the delights of Falgos in the Pyrénées-Orientales. The French squad has been based there since the end of last week and on Thursday the 25 players selected for the first of the two World Cup warm-ups against England will fly to London. The eleven players not required for the Twickenham encounter will return to the national rugby centre at Marcoussis.
PSA won’t name his starting XV for Saturday’s clash until Friday afternoon but the composition of the squad for the first of ‘Le Crunch Amical’ has prompted the French rugby media to start searching for clues as to the likely starting XV when France play Italy on September 19 in their opening pool game.
Among the absentees this weekend are captain Thierry Dusautoir and veteran second-row Pascal Pape, both of whom are recovering from minor knocks. According to some reports, recent French training sessions have seen Dusautoir form a back-row with Clermont’s Damien Chouly and Loann Goujon of Bordeaux. Goujon replaced Chouly at No 8 during the Six Nations on account of his greater dynamism and ball-carrying impact, but PSA has always been an admirer of Chouly’s set-piece work and he has been France’s line-out organizer for much of his reign.
So have PSA and Yannick Bru, France’s forwards’ coach, decided to shift Chouly to the flank – where he usually plays for Clermont – to accommodate Goujon? That would mean no place for Bernard Le Roux, the Racing flanker who has been a regular starter in the last couple of seasons but who is among the 11 left in Paris. Intriguingly, Midi Olympique claims that Le Roux could be paired in second row alongside Sebastien Vahaamahina for the return match on Saturday week. The 6ft 4in and 17 stone Le Roux has the physique for the second-row and his presence in the engine room would also give France some much-needed athleticism in a position where, compared to other nations, they have a shortage of big men with explosive power and pace to boot.
With Chouly also omitted from Saturday’s match the back-row will probably comprise Fulgence Ouedraogo, Yannick Nyanga and Louis Picamoles none of whom have featured much for France in the last two seasons. At least one of the trio won’t make the final cut but it’s unlikely to be the giant Toulouse No 8. Picamoles has endured a tough 12 months, laid low this time last year by a lung infection that impaired his performance for months. It wasn’t until the spring that he began to recover his fitness, and with it his form, and reports indicate that six weeks of intensive training have done wonders for the 29-year-old. Picamoles is stereotypically French; not one of life’s natural trainers, the hothouse environment of a World Cup training camp has focused his mind and enabled him to train well, eat well and feel well. For Picamoles, like so many of his countrymen, is a player who performs best when his confidence is high.
The same can be said for Francois Trinh-Duc, Picamoles’ former teammate at Montpellier. The fly-half has amassed 49 caps over the last seven years without ever really giving the impression he’s doing anything other than keeping the No10 shirt warm until someone more consistent comes along. That hasn’t happened and so Trinh-Duc goes to Twickenham with the opportunity to stake his claim to be the World Cup starter. In training recently he’s been paired with Clermont scrum-half Morgan Parra, the man who in the 2011 World Cup final was controversially picked to play fly-half ahead of Trinh-Duc.
Frederic Michalak stays in Paris, as does scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde, the Toulon pair at this stage pencilled in as the likely half-back combination for France’s opening World Cup match. PSA has always had a soft spot for Michalak, while he’s never shown much faith in Trinh-Duc’s qualities.
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Elsewhere only Benjamin Kayser and Eddy Ben Arous of the front row union don’t make the trip to Paris but if recent training sessions are anything to go by, Nicolas Mas, Guilhem Guirado and Vincent Debaty will start against Italy. In the back three, Scott Spedding looks nailed down at full-back with reports suggesting that PSA will play the Racing 15, Brice Dulin, on the wing in one of the warm-up matches to see how he goes.
As for the centre combination, England debutant Sam Burgess can at least rest easy that he won’t have to deal with the different threats posed by Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud. But Gael Fickou, Rémi Lamerat and Alexandre Dumoulin are all fine footballers, their senses sharpened by the knowledge that one of the five players to be axed from the current squad later this month will be one of them. They’re playing for their places, as is Burgess, just one more reason why Saturday’s clash will be anything but a Crunch ‘amical’